Whether you’re a manager at a large corporation or you own a farm business that hires a small cohort of staff, you’re obligated under the law to provide a harassment-free workplace, says Cherolyn Knapp, a partner at Guelph-based law firm, Nelson, Watson LLP.
Specific statutes vary from province to province, and links to relevant pieces of legislation can be found through the Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council (CAHRC).
In Ontario, for example, all workplaces are required by the Occupational Health and Safety Act to have workplace violence and workplace harassment policies that target any kind of harassment and bullying. Businesses that don’t have policies can be ordered to make them, and fined for not having them.
Provincial human rights legislation also protects employees from discrimination and harassment based on sex or gender.
“If any person is subject to harassment in their job, they can go back to their employer and say ‘I’m being harassed. Help me.’” Knapp says. “There is no exemption for a family-run business like a farm.”
Knapp says employers should have a policy statement that states discrimination and harassment are not permitted in the workplace. Accompanying that policy should be a procedure that outlines step-by-step instructions if an incident has occurred. Who is responsible to receive complaints? What if the complaint is about that person — who is the alternate contact? What is the format to make a complaint? Most importantly, how is the complaint going to be investigated?
“By having policies and procedures in place, everyone knows what to do,” says Knapp. “The other important piece is training and documentation, which conveys to everyone the employer takes these things seriously.”
Knapp says in Ontario, a person who is being harassed has the option to bring an application to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO). The person does not need to have lost employment to take this step, though Knapp admits it can make a situation awkward.
According to HRTO’s website, “The HRTO first offers parties the opportunity to settle the dispute through mediation. If the parties do not agree to mediation, or mediation does not resolve the application, the HRTO holds a hearing.”
“If you have an employer who has a known problematic employee and they have license to harass and sexually harass, that’s not fair,” Knapp says. “The other employees are left to either try to work elsewhere or to hold the employer accountable.”
Knapp says if she was advising a complainant, she would have a long talk about what they hoped to accomplish. If the employee has decided the workplace is too poisonous to continue working there, they may seek damages for lost wages as well as damages for discrimination. Often HRTO will order the workplace put human rights policies into place.
Knapp says it’s important to take the impact of sexual harassment seriously. It has taken effort to raise awareness among people who are not normally the target of that kind of treatment so they understand its impact.
“A lot of people have complicated pasts,” says Knapp. “We should never underestimate the impact our words and deeds have on others.”
Call it when you see it
You’re on the farm and someone makes an offensive joke or statement. What do you do?
Be ready, says Guelph-based lawyer Cherolyn Knapp. Whether you’re male or female, you may succeed with a response that is quick and to the point.
“Those of us who work in male-dominated fields know what it feels like to walk into a meeting and brace for the next awful comment,” Knapp says. “Unfortunately, we’re so uncomfortable when it happens that we’re wracking our brain to crawl out of a hole to get out of the situation.”
So, Knapp says she’s been practising naming harassment when she spots it in her own life, and addressing it directly: “Oh I see. You’re trying to sexualize me to put me off my guard.” Or “You’re suggesting I make the lunch because you’re intimidated by me in the boardroom.”
As a tactic, addressing behaviour before it escalates can be effective, says Debra Pretty-Straathof, a director on the Ontario Federation of Agriculture. She says over the years her experiences with male colleagues have ranged from benign to ridiculous. She has come to think of the men who serve on the board with as her brothers and uncles, and banter is part of being on the team.
Still, it’s strange how a comment like “Here comes our token woman” can affect not only your opinion of the person saying it, but it may have the effect of shifting the way you relate to your other male colleagues until you can shake it off. Sometimes that happens quickly but other times it sticks much longer.
“It’s not always black and white,” Pretty-Straathof says. “I usually shrug off something another person might take great offence to. I try to consider the source and the circumstances. Sometimes ‘That’s not appropriate’ is all it takes to wake someone up.”
“Sometimes all it takes is a little awareness.”
Pretty-Straathof recognizes not everyone has the confidence to speak up. She says it depends on where a person is in her life, and how she’s feeling about herself. But she says it’s important not to make excuses for anyone else’s behaviour.
In agriculture she’s had to address harassment with a peer only once in a serious way. “I pulled someone aside and said, ‘Look, you’re a good guy, but some of your inappropriate comments have been overheard, and that’s not going to help you any,’ and a light bulb came on,” she says. “He just didn’t realize how it would be perceived. I thought, ‘I could do this guy a favour and say something or I could let him sink.’ Sometimes a private conversation is all it takes.”
Pretty-Straathof notes it’s common for boards to take training to communicate with government representatives — why not work on developing tools to communicate with each other?
“I don’t think we have the language to address gender issues in a productive way,” she says. “A little coaching on how to address it calmly, how to communicate with each other as colleagues, might benefit a few people and save a lot of angst.”